My daughter saves her deepest theological questions for bedtime. She doesn’t give a rip about theology, but she cares deeply about delaying bedtime. If Daddy is foolish enough to take the bait on Who-made-God-type questions, she wins. Even though her greatest need is rest, she thinks her late-night allies are unsolvable religious questions. In the end, everyone ends up sleepy and confused.
So it is with preaching: Let’s preach about current political events; let’s preach about the state of the church worldwide; let’s crusade against the high-profile fools of Christendom and expose them for charlatans—in fact, let’s do anything other than preaching about taking the yoke of discipleship. I’m just wondering, have you ever seen anyone win a religious argument? The only reason a crowd gathers is simply to watch a good fight, never mind who wins.
The Apostle Paul, that great intellect of the first generation church, was capable of winning nearly any argument, but with each passing year he lost interest in being God’s cop and gave himself more and more to being God’s herald. Consider this amazing trope from his letter to the Philippians:
Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. —Philippians 1: 12-18
He actually rejoiced even as others tried to make his life more complicated! This passage is filled with marvels—and instruction—for every student of Jesus. Paul, thrown in prison because he declared the gospel, looks out from his house arrest in Rome to see and hear a wide variety of evangelists continuing his work. He knows that some are simply trying to pour gas on the fire of his persecution. These interlopers actually mean to do him harm, but Paul doesn’t care. He focuses on the gospel and delights that the message goes forth. Could you do that? Could you ignore your enemies and celebrate the sound of the Kingdom—even if it is sounded off-key?
If the Apostle Paul learned how to ignore the fools and focus on the image of Christ, how much more should we? Just after giving these critics his blessing, Paul sings the hymn to the lowliness of his King and the exaltation that is sure to follow. Paul demonstrates the value of devotion to the Lord, not devotion to the cause—and there is a difference. From his chains in Rome, Paul gives us at least four reasons he doesn’t take the bait:
1) When we’re devoted to the cause ,we can forget the King. Paul stayed focused on Jesus and cared nothing for the hypocrisy of his critics. Paul valued the Lord’s opinion over the judgment of others.
2) When we’re devoted to the cause, our agenda is determined by the opposition. In his day (and in ours) there are too many mistakes to correct—why let their errors define your message? Instead, Paul refused to allow the foolishness of others draw him into foolish controversy. He preached Jesus the King.
3) When we’re focused on the cause, we will embrace nearly any platform that gains attention, because we come to believe the ends justify the means. Paul rejoiced in his chains because he saw an obscure entry into the very palace guard of Rome.
4) When we’re focused on the cause ,we’re concerned with changing others—whether or not we have ever changed ourselves. Yet the master plan of of the Master Himself was to change us from the inside out.
Like my little girl trying to avoid the school-night bedtime, we avoid the greatest obstacle to the Kingdom’s progress: ourselves—our actions, our behavior, our pursuit of Christlikeness. With each passing year in ministry, Paul trusted that Jesus was able to police the church. He traded in his badge and took up the servant’s towel. And strangely, the gospel of the Kingdom grew and spread—even without the benefit of the orthodoxy patrol.